The pause of the 8th day
Rejoicing in our story

Reflecting on The Tribe

Image from this gallery of press stills.

A few weeks ago at the Idea Festival, Ethan saw a short film called The Tribe as part of a talk by Tiffany Shlain, the film's producer and director and also co-author (with her husband Ken Goldberg.) The film just became available on iTunes for $1.99, so I picked it up. It's a short film -- eighteen minutes, an auspicious number! -- about Jewish identity in America today.

If you've got an interest in Jewish identity, and two bucks to spare, it's worth downloading. (My favorite moment may be the one Ethan first told me about -- roughly three minutes and fifty seconds in to the film, there's a visual representation of the many kinds of Jews in America today, including the Renewal Jew, who is depicted as a hippie Ken doll sitting in lotus position.)

Ken doll? Well, yeah. All of the denominations are represented by Barbies and Kens, because one of the threads of the movie is the creation of Barbie and the question of what, exactly, "looking Jewish" means. As the voiceover says, early in the film, "A Jewish woman created Barbie. Maybe Barbie can explain something about how this generation responds to being Jewish today." (Hear the film's opening lines here in this trailer.)

There's stuff I like here. The Barbie representation of the various denominations is, yeah, cute; the data about just how small a percentage of the world Jews make up, and the scrolling history of persection, are pretty sobering; and there's a prose-poetry performance piece at the end, in the voice of a Jewish woman reclaiming what it means to "look Jewish," which I quite like. (It's by Vanessa Hidary, who calls herself "The Hebrew Mamita." Her website seems to be down at the moment, though here's an article about her.)

There's also stuff here that I question. The film bites off more than it can chew in eighteen minutes. Contemporary Jewish identity in all of its incarnations? Barbie and the problematics of gender, appearance, stereotypes and assimilation? The intersection of Jewish identity, religion, and culture -- and how the existence of the state of Israel relates to Jewish American identity? There's just no way to explore these deeply in such a short piece. Granted, I'm not sure the film aims at a coherent philosophical argument; it works on associative levels, not intellectual ones. Still, I could wish for less breadth and more depth.   

Trickier for me is the fact that although there are nods to the fact that some Jews actually find spiritual sustenance in our Jewishness, most of the contemporary Jews in the film are "cultural" Jews rather than Jews who self-identify as religious. It may be that I'm not quite in the film's target audience, in that sense.

But it's a well-done piece, visually interesting (Shlain likes using found footage, which adds an interesting referential layer to the whole thing) and definitely a conversation starter. I like the fact that the filmmakers' stated intention is "to spark an ongoing open discussion about what it means to be an American Jew in the 21st Century." If you download it, I'd be curious to know what you think. And, it seems, so would they.

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